Rethinking the past and future of South African land reform

If expropriation of land without compensation is to be state policy, it must take its place within the larger programme of land reform, rather than displacing it. For its part, land reform is not about the crude land confiscation from the whites for its “return” to blacks.

Rather, land reform seeks to reconcile three intersecting and overlapping currents: correcting historical wrongs; confronting the present social and economic inequities; and securing an equality-based future for all. If land reform is unable to meet these goals, it will be a failure. We must first of all accept that the state’s current programme for the restitution of land is in disarray.

And there are many reasons for this. The cut-off date of 19 June 1913 failed to provide an anchor point around which past dispossessions could be forgiven, and a new future forged. The cut-off date has aggravated and entrenched dispossession. Claimants who believed in the historical legitimacy of their claims to the land were soon disappointed when they learned that their claims fell “outside” the land restitution process because the law says there are no restitution claims for those whose land happened to have been lost on the 18th, rather than on 19 June 1913.

Counter claims slow land reform
For those with legally valid claims there were problems of “proof”: with the passage of time, records are lost, memories fade and witnesses with direct experiences of the dispossessions die. Even the most iconic of cases which evidence dispossession as recent as the 1960s, like the District Six case, experiences the same difficulty. People who were there at the time are slowly dying out. In this climate of complexity and confusion the “experts” – historians, advocates, attorneys, anthropologists, property valuers – have displaced the landed and the landless as the central players in the struggle for the return of the land.

Structural problems aside, the programme of land reform is bedevilled by gross incompetence and corruption. Public funds allocated for the promotion of the public good by paying land holders in exchange for availing land to the claimant categories, who are often descendants of the indigenous people, have gone to waste.

About a year ago, it was disclosed that some R54 billion had been spent on land reform since 1994. Yet it is hard to show the value for the spending, especially when one considers that less than 10% of agricultural land has passed from whites to blacks since 1994. All of this explains the mistrust in the ability of the state to “deliver” on the land promise.

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